Antisemitism is cool at the Edinburgh Festival 06
Blogowners comment: I've been fairly sceptical of the rise of British anti-Semitism of which we hear occasionally. Yet here is another example that involves neither synagogue burning or physical violence on Jews, nor is it simply criticism of Israel. But these jokes (below) aren't funny...
The following article by Jamie Glassman is from The Times.
As a writer on The Ali G Show I can do insulting jokes. But the anti-Jewish sentiment at Edinburgh is shocking. There's nothing I like more than a Jewish joke. It’s the anti-Jewish ones I’m not so keen on.
Wandering through the streets of Edinburgh during the world’s largest arts festival, you never know what sight or sound you will be bombarded with next. Half-naked men on 6ft stilts meander by, half-naked girls rush to sell you their show, troops of Japanese acrobats tumble past. But I wasn’t prepared for the verbal assault I got when I wandered into a comedy gig this week.
There have always been anti- Semitic jokes. But you know times are changing when you go along to a stand-up show at the Pleasance Courtyard at the Edinburgh Fringe and you hear audience members shouting “Throw them in the oven” when the comic suggests kids should stop playing Cowboys and Indians and replace it with Nazis and Jews.
Stand-up comedy is as good a prism as any through which to look at the changing attitudes in our society. If my past few days are anything to go by then it is becoming increasingly acceptable to hate the Jews. Again.
I’ve seen two comics so far who have been happy to amuse their crowds with Holocaust gags. I’m not sure which to be the more concerned about.
One was a left-leaning angry Australian conspiracy theorist, Steve Hughes, whose show The Storm is an assault on all things Western. “I want to bash Condoleezza Rice’s brain to bits and kill that f****** Jew Richard Perle.” Hughes is the one at the Pleasance Courtyard while Perle is an adviser to George W. Bush as he was to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton on foreign affairs.
The second was a far more charming African-American comic who for much of the show was thoughtful, funny and even quite sweet. But he seemed to have a problem with Jews, too. Reginald D. Hunter is doing sell-out shows in the new E4-sponsored venue, the Udderbelly. Three hundred come along every night to see Hunter’s Pride and Prejudice and Niggas. You should see the poster.
I was laughing along until he announced that he was about to be extremely controversial and break the last taboo of stand-up comedy. Long silent pause. Jeeeeews. Another long pause with some giggles from the audience. You see, you’re not allowed to say that.
He went on to say how its illegal to deny the Holocaust in Austria. He has a good mind to go to Austria, stand in the street and say the Holocaust didn’t happen so that he could get arrested and tell the judge he was talking about the Rwandan holocaust. Whether or not he thought there should be a law against going to Rwanda and denying that genocide, he didn’t say.
By claiming that making a joke about Jews is the one last, great comic taboo, he simultaneously provides the moral justification for a crack at the Jews and he silences them from the right to complain, as this would only confirm the unspoken premise: that Jews are overprotected in society or even worse that Jewish media controllers are obsessed with silencing any criticism of their own.
His joke is essentially one about freedom of speech and selective Jewish control of that freedom, but he gives the lie to his true feelings by his choice of example. Of all the possible targets, of all the things he might wish to say, his complaint is that he is not permitted to parrot the greatest anti-Semitic slur of the last hundred years — that the Holocaust never happened. As a believer in free speech, I am not convinced by the criminalisation of Holocaust denial, but that does not mean I am confused about the motives of those who wish to utter it.
The great Lenny Bruce, a comedian who suffered endlessly at the hands of the American authorities for the right to freedom of speech and to break taboos, once did a bit that began: “Are there any niggers here tonight?” His liberal audience was initially shocked at this racist outburst, but as the monologue continued he made it clear that it was “the suppression of the word that gives it the power”. That was taboo-busting. That was a righteous plea for freedom of speech.
The African-American comedian Dick Gregory was in attendance that night. He subsequently published a book entitled Nigger, and dedicated it: “Dear Momma, Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
It’s hard to imagine a Jew reacting similarly to Hunter’s bit. The question of what is acceptable material for comedy is always going to be a complex one to answer. Comedians should certainly be allowed to say anything. In fact, it is their role and their duty to be breaking taboos where they need to be broken. But comics do have an obligation to think about whom they might be offending with their material and whether or not those who say they are offended are right to be.
These questions are not entirely foreign to me. As a producer and writer on The Ali G Show, I have been accused of racism, among other things, in the past. All three characters in that show had their prejudices but I hope all thinking people would see the satire not far below the surface.
Borat, the fictional Kazakhstani journalist, was overtly anti-Semitic. Sacha Baron Cohen would dangle Borat’s anti-Semitism in front of our interviewees and we would all be shocked and amazed at how many of them would take the bait and join in. The Country Bar in Phoenix, Arizona, where the crowd sang along to Throw the Jew down the Well, was a terrifying example.
Jewish communal organisations in the US were concerned at the time that the tune would catch on and spur a rise of anti-Jewish attacks. Fortunately, most people saw it for the satire it was intended to be.
Borat was also prejudiced against blacks and Gypsies. Ali G was a homophobe and a misogynist. Austrian fashion presenter Bruno hated the disabled, all fat people, ugly people and the Jews too. Apologies if I have forgotten some colour, creed or lifestyle that we would use as bait.
But what is going on in Edinburgh now is no satire. For me, Hughes represents a growing trend among left-thinking people in this country and around the world to accept as dogma that those on the Left should hate Bush, Blair, American imperialism, Israel and, while we’re at it, the Jews. It is a cultural trend that I’ve found increasingly evident but never before has the Jew-hating element been so overt. This week has confirmed that my Jewish paranoia is not entirely unfounded. As the old saying goes: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.”
Hughes wasn’t one for the odd remark or the clever comment; he waxed lyrical on how Osama bin Laden is far less of a threat than Dick Cheney, before defending Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, saying he has no intention of destroying Israel, he has just been misquoted.
Yet I sat in that audience and I didn’t heckle. In hindsight it is heartening that half of his audience sat in stunned silence, as I did, for most of his show; but at the time it was the other half of the audience who were whooping along and lapping him up that made the greater impression.
As for Hunter, he seems like a nice guy, well meaning and at times very funny. While Hughes did little to hide his Jew-hatred, in a way it is even more disheartening that Hunter is so keen to make the Holocaust fair game.